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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Bob Niedt, Online Editor
| November 19, 2019
The long travel to retirement is about to end. You’re ready to begin new journeys, hit the open road, ditch the bricks and sticks — RV speak for a traditional house — and travel the blue highways in a recreational vehicle.
And why not? You’ve earned it, with a comfortable cushion of retirement income and a yearning to see the country, camp, maybe glamp, and visit the scattered and grown kids and grandchildren in between sightseeing stops. You know you’ll have fellow travelers. Approximately 10 million U.S. households own RVs, according to the RV Industry Association, and roughly 1 million Americans are living full-time in them.
But is an RV in retirement really right for you? We checked in with retirees who spend much of their time in recreational vehicles for their guidance on the pros of RV living in retirement. Here’s what they had to say about the upsides of life on the road in an RV.
It’s no secret your income will dip in retirement once the regular paychecks stop rolling in. You may have to make some lifestyle changes. However, longtime RVers say you can live well on a limited budget trekking in an RV.
“We live modestly,” says Charley Hannagan, who has been RVing with her husband, Joe, since 2014. “Joe tries not to spend more than $40 a night, on average, on housing. We have spent more, and we have parked for free. There are many places you can park for free: Walmarts, Cracker Barrels, the L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine. Joe has a senior pass for the national parks [$20/year or $80 for a lifetime pass] that gets us in for free and cuts the price of parking in half.” Parking fees often include electricity, water, sewer, cable and Wi-Fi.
As for the cost of an actual RV, prices vary greatly, from as little as $6,000 for a pop-up trailer to half a million or more for a tricked-out motorhome. Buying used instead of new can reap big savings. A travel trailer (that’s hitched to the back of a truck or SUV), a fifth-wheel (a trailer that overlaps the truck bed) or a motorhome can run in the tens of thousands of dollars used, versus hundreds of thousands for a traditional home. And if you sell your house to downsize to an RV, you’ll no longer be carrying a mortgage.
“We don't pay property taxes or other taxes on the motorhome,” says Hannagan. “We paid a tax when we bought it. We pay about $1,700 a year to insure our car and RV. We spend about what we would for food if we lived in a sticks-and-bricks house.”
While some RV-living retirees are enjoying the road, they’re also giving back by volunteering. Their altruism can have a side benefit of reducing day-to-day expenses.
“We volunteer for a United Methodist organization called NOMADS, which does service projects across the United States, such as rebuilding homes after disasters, doing repairs on churches and camps,” says Hannagan. “The projects last one to three weeks, and we park for free during those times.”
Retirees Bill and Cheryl Wessels of Sun City, Ariz., also volunteer for NOMADS as they travel the nation in their RV.
“Since 2005 [starting with Hurricane Katrina] we have rebuilt after several hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and even after fires,” says Bill Wessels. “Many charitable organizations sponsor groups such as our NOMADS, and many live and travel in their RVs to the work sites, because they are self-contained. Our NOMADS organization calls it retirement with a purpose.”
Hannagan says it’s common for RVers to volunteer at national parks, forests or wildlife refuges in exchange for free parking. Other RVers volunteer as camp hosts in state parks to park for free. “If we weren't doing the volunteering, the cost would be the same as being in a sticks and bricks with the insurance, electric and gas, and taxes,” she estimates.
Because your home is on wheels, there’s only so much storage space. A travel trailer, for example, is typically less than 400 square feet, according to the RV Industry Association.
“Surprisingly, I find that the longer we're on the road, the more stuff I can do without,” says Hannagan. “I'm constantly culling clothes and other junk because we just don't have the space to keep things we don't use.”
If you’re the sentimental type, living in an RV can be challenging -- and expensive, if you need to rent storage space for the rest of your belongings. Alternatively, seek out a kindly friend or relative who has extra space in the basement or attic to store your stuff for free.
When you’re retired and on the road in your RV, there’s rarely a need to get from Point A to Point B in the straightest line. In fact, sometimes it’s more fun to avoid the interstates and go out of your way. Just be sure the backroads you travel can accommodate your RV.
“We've programmed our GPS to keep us away from anything less than a 13-foot bridge,” says Hannagan, whose RV is 12-and-a-half-feet tall. “We plan routes to avoid crazy turns and bad bridges. Unlike with a car, you can't just wing it.”
In addition to the roadway itself, you’ll want to ensure you have a place to park along the way. Retirees Nancy and Allen Fasoldt, who have been RVing for 12 years, have become pros at identifying welcoming overnight parking spots, from the aforementioned Walmarts and Cracker Barrels to casinos and truck stops. The #1 rule, according to Nancy Fasoldt, is to call ahead and ask for permission to park overnight.
The Fasoldts rely on technology to unearth parking options.
“A great app for finding these places is Allstays Camp & RV [$9.99 on Apple’s App Store]” says Fasoldt. “Online, we use Freecampsites.net and Casinocamper.com. We also use Campendium.com. We are in our first year as members of Harvest Hosts, which lets us stay for free overnight at wineries, some museums, some farms and golf courses. The catch is they want our business.”
Relocating in retirement is common. Warm-weather states such as Florida and Arizona are popular landing spots for retirees. Once you make the move away, it can become challenging to see your kids and grandkids outside of holidays or school breaks due to travel costs and time constraints. That is, unless you retire in an RV.
“We see our grandkids, and for much longer amounts of time, now that we're on the road,” says Hannagan. Included among the recent meet-ups with family was a camping trip to West Virginia and sightseeing in Gettysburg and Philadelphia. Hannagan adds that she saw an aunt and uncle in Louisiana while volunteering on a disaster relief project.
The Fasoldts echo the sentiment, noting that an RV allows them to more easily visit kids and grandkids who live across the country. However, while RV living has proven beneficial to maintaining family relationships, friendships can suffer.
“Friends at home, however, have dwindled in numbers over the years because we aren’t around to celebrate holidays, birthdays or even enjoy get-togethers,” says Nancy Fasoldt. “It is a huge loss. Those we still connect with at home are very special.”
Some RV retirees espouse the convenience and thriftiness of dining in more and eating out less than when they lived in a traditional house. “Because we carry our home with us, we only eat out about once a week,” says Hannagan. “That's much less than when we lived at home and often didn't feel like cooking after work.”
But many RVers also laud the variety of fresh foods and regional specialties they get to enjoy as they traverse the nation.
“We can't finish this discussion without talking about food,” says Bill Wessels. “Oysters in the Pacific Northwest, lobsters in Maine and don't forget all the Cajun food in Louisiana. I can't get salmon as fresh as in Alaska.”
Adds Fasoldt, “Our aim when we do eat out is to do the unchained eateries, where the likelihood of getting fresh food is greater than in fast-food restaurants. Thank goodness for a little [free] app called Around Me. I even find thrift stores and post offices using that app.”
Of course, a huge upside to retiring in an RV is the ability to see as much of America (other countries, too, for that matter) as you want at your own pace.
“We traveled to 49 states, several Canadian provinces and drove it to Cabo San Lucas [in Mexico],” says Bill Wessels. “We lived in our RV full time for two and a half years, and most of the rest of the time we’re in it a minimum of six months a year. We have seen the fall colors in New England, followed the aspens as they changed colors in Colorado, experienced the beauty around every curve in the road as we followed the Columbia River, and got up close and personal in Denali National Park [in Alaska]. An RV allowed us to be volunteers in places we couldn’t otherwise have helped and give back during retirement.”
The Hannagans have found some out-of-the way places to station their RV.
“We parked on a small island is Alexandria Bay [in New York]. We sat on a bridge overlooking the Hudson River -- it’s a park called Walkway Over the Hudson -- to see Fourth of July fireworks, which was way cool,” says Charley Hannagan. “We parked for six weeks in the fall in Waves, North Carolina, an island in the Outer Banks. We evacuated twice for hurricanes. We've camped twice in the Smokies. We swam in clear springs and saw manatees in Crystal River, Florida.”
The Fasoldts, too, have traveled extensively in their 12 years of RVing in retirement, hitting 49 out of 50 states (sorry Hawaii) as well as several Canadian provinces.
Says Nancy Fasoldt: “We’ve enjoyed countless National Parks and monuments -- Death Valley is beyond amazing; the jaw-dropping Cascades in northern Washington; California’s Highway 1 before the floods and fires; Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop in Wyoming; creative, lovely Bisbee, Arizona; Padre Island National Seashore, near Corpus Christi, Texas; South Padre Island, Texas, where we still winter over; all of Idaho one summer; tons of presidential libraries and museums -- you should see the Watergate exhibit at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California; many, many, many zoos and quirky museums; the Golden Isles off Georgia; Florida’s Key West and the Everglades; and Nikolaevsk, a Russian Orthodox village of ‘Old Believers’ in Alaska.”
When you’re moving about the country in your motorhome, you have a chance to see the makeup of America and the variety of people who inhabit it.
“People are our lives, and we meet tons and tons of them,” says Fasoldt. “But fleetingly. Some of our travel friends we’ve held on to for years, even though we’ve not seen them in person for years. Others we connect with annually. I compare the RV life to life in the military. When you enlist, you know you are likely to be transferred here and there, so you learn to make friends in a hurry. Same thing on the road.”
Adds Hannagan: “We've met some really interesting people. We had dinner with three brothers fly fishing in the Smokies, and the subjects of our conversations wove a friendship into the darkness. We parked next to an artist in Florida, who decorated her fifth wheel with vividly colored paintings of birds and cats. People offer tips on what to see and where to eat. I always ask people, what's the one thing I should see that most people miss?”